- Nobody saw Daniel Murphy saving the Mets in October 2015, just like nobody anticipated David Freese saving the Cardinals in 2011. Who will be 2017's unlikely October heroes?
Nobody saw Daniel Murphy coming in 2015, just as nobody saw David Freese coming in 2011, just as nobody saw Billy Hatcher coming in 1990. Each of those players began those Octobers with relatively modest profiles, and emerged as never-to-be-forgotten playoff heroes. Who might join them this month? Here are four leading candidates—one from each of the championship series clubs—whose production, in fact, already exceeds their reputations.
The 25-year-old Contreras had a disjointed season. He seemed to struggle to adjust to the demands of being a full-time big league catcher during the first half, then missed a month with a strained hamstring midway through the second. But from July 14, the day after the All-Star break, until Aug. 9, when he strained his hammy, he showed his potential, which is to be nothing short of one of the best hitters alive. He batted .311 during that 23 game stretch, and was first in the majors in RBI (29), third in homers (10) and 12th in OPS (1.080), leading the Cubs as they turned a 5.5 game deficit in the NL Central into a 1.5 game lead. In fact, despite the disruptions, he ranked third on the loaded Cubs in overall fWAR at 3.3, trailing only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Don’t let his .214 average in the NLDS fool you.
The 24-year-old was a bust in 15 outings as a starter this year, going 6–9 with a 6.12 ERA and an incredible .882 OPS against—meaning that he essentially turned every batter he faced, on average, into Eric Hosmer. He lost his gig in mid-July. Then he became awesome. In 23 relief appearances, Musgrove had a 1.44 ERA and a .565 OPS against; suddenly, he was transforming opponents into lineups filled with Austin Romines. Basically, hitters no longer had multiple plate appearances each night to familiarize themselves with him—and his short outings meant that he instantly added two miles an hour to his average fastball (up to 95.5 mph). With Chris Devenski struggling as of late, and Lance McCullers still adjusting to his relief ace role, it could be Musgrove who serves as the ultimate late innings bridge to closer Ken Giles.
Yasmani Grandal has the higher profile and will likely start Game 1 behind the plate, but you might not see him much after that. While Grandal ranked fourth among catchers with 22 homers and is an elite pitch framer, the 27-year-old Barnes, despite his backup designation, has simply been the better player in his first full big league season. He’s also in the top ten in pitch framing, but trailed only Justin Turner among Dodgers in OBP, at .408, exactly 100 points higher than Grandal’s. In fact, his .895 OPS ranked first in baseball among catchers with more than 200 plate appearances. While Grandal remains Clayton Kershaw’s catcher of choice, all other NLCS starts could go to Barnes—as well they should.
Kahnle was definitely the third name, behind Todd Frazier and David Robertson, in the July trade that now looks like one of the best of the season, as Yankees GM Brian Cashman got that trio from the White Sox in exchange for Blake Rutherford (a top prospect, but one who mustered just two home runs this year), reliever Tyler Clippard and two lesser farmhands. Which is crazy, as Kahnle was so dominant this year that he’d probably have been the closer on half the teams in baseball. Armed with a fastball that averaged 98 miles an hour, his 13.79 strikeouts per nine innings trailed only Craig Kimbrel, Corey Knebel and Kenley Jansen among pitchers who worked 60 innings. Joe Girardi likes to use Aroldis Chapman for two inning stretches this time of year—but he had to notice his closer’s velocity dropped in his second frame during an ultimately successful ALDS Game 5 save. Expect Kahnle to get at least a few of those high leverage late innings going forward.